Little Box, Big Impact

For City Tasting Box, Food Choices Can Change a City

Photography by Brian Manning

City Tasting Box is more than just a box of tasty treats. It’s a snapshot of Memphis food that allows purchasers to taste the grit-and-grind culture of the Bluff City. Filled with everything from cookies and popcorn to spices and sauces, the box teases a local experience.

The business was founded when Cristina McCarter and Lisa Brown came together, looking for a creative way to keep the local food scene moving. They wanted to create a product that reflected the culinary heritage and makeup of Memphis, with a mission and vision focused on local impact.

As they conceptualized the business, this catchphrase kept coming to mind: “Eat Local. Be Kind.”

“We want more people to choose to eat locally more often,” Lisa says.

“Instead of buying lunch from a chain restaurant, dine at the new locally owned Thai spot that just opened. Or instead of trying a new seasoning from Lawry’s or McCormick, try out one of Chef Tam’s or Spicy Z’s new seasonings.”

The idea is to move local dollars from large, multibillion-dollar corporations to microbusinesses. They believe locally made products are better than mass-produced items because they have higher quality ingredients and “way more love.”

Local is a lifestyle

For Lisa and Cristina, supporting local is a lifestyle, not a trend.

“With our purchasing decisions, we choose to keep a small restaurant owner in business,” Lisa explains. “We tell a local food maker, ‘We see you and support you.’ Our buying power is how we invest in our local economy, and we simply want to give everyone the opportunity to invest in the Memphis food scene and our collective stories.”

Supporting women- and minority-owned businesses is especially important as those businesses make up a big part of the local economy. By choosing to shop local, consumers are choosing to support their neighbors. Each City Tasting Box purchase supports more than 10 local businesses.

“In a way, your dollar is like a vote. Every time you choose to patronize somewhere local, it’s as if you are voting to keep them in business,” says Cristina.

Lisa adds: “When you choose to eat local, not only are you supporting the chef, but you are also supporting their local suppliers and farmers. The more local dollars that stay in circulation, the better it is for the local economy. That means more jobs, a better housing market, better neighborhoods, and a better city.”

In August, City Tasting Box will turn two years old. Everything about the boxes is local, including the printing and packaging.

Over the last two years, the business has included a variety of theme boxes, like the Mission Box, the Official Memphis Travel Box, the Support Local Box, and the Majority Box. And more than 35 local businesses’ products have been included.

To be included in one of their curated boxes, products must be made in a professional kitchen. And all vendors must have proper certifications with the USDA and Tennessee Department of Agriculture.

When grouping products in each of the boxes, Lisa and Cristina’s goal is to create the optimal palatable experience for each consumer.

“When we’re curating the boxes, we do a blend of flavor profiles—salty, sweet, and spicy. In the box itself, we combine old-school companies that [locals] are familiar with alongside new ones to tell the whole food story of Memphis,” Cristina explains.

Cristina and Lisa describe the Official Memphis Travel Box as their “most Memphis” box with flavors from Corky’s and the Rendezvous, burger seasoning from Huey’s, hot wing sauce by The Wing Guru, butter cookies from Makeda’s, salted caramels from Shotwell Candy Co., and Memphis-inspired tea blends from My Cup of Tea.

Supporting Black-owned businesses

The focus of the Majority Box is heritage, tenacity, resilience, and Black-owned businesses. Inside you’ll find Makeda’s butter cookies; Pop’s Kernel Gourmet Popcorn 3-D blend; Chef Tam’s Spices of Life lemon pepper hot sauce; The Wing Guru’s Memphis dry heat pork skins; Goodness Gracious Luxe Cookies chocolate chip cookie mix; Hackberry Tea Company’s Tranquilitea blend; Spicy Z’s Cajun seasoning; B Chill Lemonade strawberry lemonade; and the Bring Your Soul t-shirt designed by We Are Memphis.

The duo says that each artisan, chef, and business owner featured in The Majority Box has a triumphant and inspiring story—and most of their recipes go back generations.

Pamela Hill, co-owner of Makeda’s Homemade Butter Cookies, has been working with Cristina for years. Cristina’s (previous business) City Tasting Tours would stop at Makeda’s for a taste of Pamela’s butter cookie crusted lemon pie.

“Ms. Pam” says she loves being part of their boxes because the box is Memphis, and her cookies represent Memphis.

She said City Tasting Box gives even more people a taste of Makeda’s. “It helped us to advertise our product and grow our business,” she says.

“Once people taste our cookies, they want more. The box is a great marketing tool that helps us.”

Makeda’s saw a surge during the pandemic because, Pamela believes, people got tired of snacking on chips and candy. “The cookies are nostalgic and bring back memories of school and childhood,” she says.

“Everyone needed help during the pandemic. It seemed like our best time in a way because people were looking for something normal, and our cookies gave them that. They couldn’t go to restaurants, but they could always grab some cookies.”

Timeko Davis-Wade, the sole proprietor of Pop’s Kernel Gourmet Popcorn, was first featured in one of the company’s boxes after participating in Cristina’s signature Craft Food and Wine Festival.

The gourmet popcorn maker says she was all in when asked to participate in the Majority Box. Since then, every time City Tasting Box escalates, so does her business.

“Because of who they are and what they created, we’re always in their boxes and our names are mentioned too,” Timeko says. “There are so many other popcorn companies in the city, but Cristina chose us, and I love it

Strategic partnerships

Lisa and Cristina have several strategic partners with unique interests in seeing Memphis thrive, including Memphis Travel, We Are Memphis, and AgLaunch.

With an initiative to help promote the creative and enterprising spirit of the city, We Are Memphis has been integral in the widespread success of The Majority Box. Lisa and Cristina believe that without their support, City Tasting Box would not have been in Forbes, Black Enterprise, Bossip, and Thrillist.

In their most recent partnership with AgLaunch’s AgriSoulFood program, they’re teaming up with local farmers and producers, helping them connect to more markets.

“Many of their farmers are taking on new business ventures like packaged foods. Instead of allowing their surplus of fruits and veggies to potentially go to waste, they have learned to make sauces, spreads and jams, trail mix, dehydrated fruits and vegetables, and a slew of pickled products,” Lisa explains.

Through the AgLaunch partnership, City Tasting Box is exploring ways to offer a farm-to-table experience and capture the entire local food system in one subscription-based box. “Our subscription service launches fall 2022 and will offer our customers quarterly boxes filled with the best pantry items from our local makers, restaurants, chefs, and now farmers,” says Lisa.

They also customize boxes for corporate clients—like Nike, Memphis Grizzlies, St. Jude, and Epicenter—who need boxes for special events and gifts. “It’s amazing how eager they are to support City Tasting Box rather than purchase something on Amazon. They understand the importance of investing in our city, and we appreciate that,” says Lisa.

Where they’re heading

“When I work with food makers, I get to understand their strife and victories. I see City Tasting Box as another channel to get in front of customers,” Lisa says. “The businesses and food makers we work with have different goals. Some are trying to build a food enterprise while some are just here as a side hustle to save money for their child’s college education.”

They want City Tasting Box to grow as a major e-commerce platform with curated boxes from other cities. The end goal is to become recognized as the largest market for local, handmade, small-batch packaged foods and goods.

They want to connect foodies to their favorite cities and food makers to new customers. The top five cities on their list are Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, DC, and LA.

About the founders

Cristina and Lisa are no strangers to food or to business.

Cristina is a “foodpreneur,” or food entrepreneur. Her other ventures include owner of Feast and Graze, a charcuterie board and catering company; and event organizer, including the annual Craft Food and Wine Festival.

Entrepreneurship has long been Cristina’s goal, but it wasn’t readily available with her education and resources after high school. After working for different companies—where she always gravitated towards food aspects of the business—and having a foodie lifestyle for years, she took a leap of faith into entrepreneurism.

“I start every business with passion and purpose,” she says. “If I don’t have that, I don’t have anything. I have been a small part of building the food and beverage community now for almost 10 years.

My motivation is my community.

Whether it be chefs, food makers, bloggers, nonprofits, etc. My foodie-to-foodpreneur journey has been amazing.”

Cristina believes that at every level of business, what she’s doing is helping herself and someone else.

Lisa is a native Memphian who moved away for a time and began her food career with the Burger King Corporation (BKC). During her tenure there, she learned operations, training, site selection, management, marketing, and finances.

She managed over $50 million dollars in revenue with 40 restaurants in her portfolio. When she left BKC and began consulting for their franchisees, she vowed that she would always serve others and share the knowledge she has gleaned over the years.

Lisa plans to eventually own a few shared kitchen spaces and pop-up restaurants.

“I really want to help chefs, food makers, and local producers launch more successful and sustainable businesses.

We’re working to grow City Tasting Box to a multimillion dollar business,” she said.

Erica Horton is a freelance journalist who loves to learn and write about almost anything. @chewsipfly

Brian Manning is a Memphis-based photographer specializing in lifestyle and editorial photography. He discovered his passion for photography in 2020, at the age of 40. His work has been featured in the Memphis Flyer, and he hopes to someday photograph during New York Fashion Week. @photos.bybe